A few years back, my home state’s office of tourism launched an ad campaign centred on the slogan, “Texas: It’s like a whole other country.”
Obviously, the motto is meant as an expression of self-adulation, not a statement of diplomatic defiance. But even a joking suggestion of Texan autonomy is a little bit scary to Texas-born liberals: Were Texas a whole other country, the Republican Party would reign supreme.
Texas is, to use the popular media parlance, a classic red state. A considerable majority of Texans vote Republican, and no Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas’s 34 electoral votes (more than any other state except California) in more than 30 years.
At first glance, this year appears to be no different from any other election year in recent memory. Statewide, John McCain currently enjoys a 14-point lead over Barack Obama. Texas Democrats have all but ceded the state’s electoral college delegation to McCain; the Obama campaign’s Texan volunteers have spent recent weeks canvassing in nearby swing states rather than closer to home.
But despite the fact that the destiny of Texas’s electoral votes is seen as a fait accompli by all involved, Obama seems to have inspired more excitement than Democrats usually do in this Republican stronghold.
Since early voting began last week, almost twice as many Texans have cast their ballots as did in the same time period four years ago. The results of early voting aren’t available yet, but more people have gone to the polls in Democratic-leaning areas than in other districts.
Obama has also earned fans in the Texan press. Of the five most widely-distributed newspapers in Texas—all of which endorsed ‘native’ son George W. Bush in 2004— the Austin American-Statesman, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the Houston Chronicle endorsed Obama this year. (The Dallas Morning News and the San Antonio Express-News backed McCain.)
And – though this fact may have little practical significance – John McCain’s lead in the polls is relatively slim in comparison to the Republican landslides of years past. The latest Pollster.com composite data have McCain leading Obama 55.3 per cent to 41.1 per cent in my home state, which seems like a lot, until you consider that George W. Bush won the state by 61.1 per cent in 2004.
Hans Klingler, the communications director for the Republican Party of Texas, doesn’t think this difference means much. “You can never compare the favorable ratings of a home state, incumbent president running for reelection with those of a person who is not from Texas. Bottom line is McCain will carry Texas and Texas will remain a Republican state in the near term,” Klingler says.
But Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, thinks that this year’s poll numbers indicate the continuation of a trend that began two years ago, when the Democrats won gains in Dallas County and in the state legislature. “It’s clear that there’s definitely more excitement right now that has been brought around by the presidential election,” says Nieto.
I grew up in Texas but currently live in New York City, where Republicans are few and far between. When I go back to Texas I normally expect to get a bracing dose of conservatism — even Austin, one of the most liberal cities in the state, knows its fair share of Republican fervor. But when I returned to Austin for a family gathering last week, I sensed that conservative spirits were relatively low. There’s remarkably little McCain-Palin paraphernalia on public display these days, but all across town I saw yard signs bearing the words “Texans for Obama” superimposed on the Texas flag.
Even my Uncle John, an Austinite who jokingly describes himself as “pretty redneck” and who hasn’t voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter, is voting for Obama this year. John likes Obama’s stance on foreign policy and energy independence and says, “I think we’ve turned some corners here in the United States.”
There won’t be enough voters like my uncle to deliver Texas’s 34 electoral votes to Obama this year. But the very existence of Republican Obama supporters in the heart of Republican country doesn’t bode well for John McCain elsewhere.
Laura Anderson is a student at Columbia University and an occasional contributor to the New York Times food blog Bitten.